Way back in the early to mid-1980s, during my misbegotten collegiate “career” at various institutions around Central Texas, I’d regularly encounter Asleep at the Wheel playing honky tonks and dancehalls around the region. That was actually a down period in their career, when the Wheel was grappling with disco and punk and new wave, trying to survive by downsizing to ever-smaller lineups.
Being an oblivious young man, however, I wasn’t really aware of any of that. I just thought they were a lot of fun, especially that freaky-tall dude out front. Judging from his deep-voiced drawl and onstage patter, he seemed like he’d probably grown up on a cattle ranch somewhere in Big Bend country west of the Pecos.
That was Ray Benson, obviously. And as I discovered when I signed on as co-writer for his memoir “Comin’ Right at Ya,” he might have the least-likely background of anybody in country music. Even though he’s been a long tall Texan for the past 40-plus years, Ray actually grew up in a Jewish family in the not-so-Wild West Town of Philadelphia — where one of his childhood playmates was future Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a detail from the book’s opening prologue that never fails to make people’s jaws drop; you’ll find it on page 6).
One cool benefit of Ray’s Jewish background is that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has picked up some right-nice attention from the Jewish blogosphere (and no, I was not aware of the existence of such a thing before this, either). Last month brought a lengthy interview with Ray on a site called Jewish Exponent: What It Means To Be Jewish In Philadelphia. This week, we have a quite positive review from the Jewish Book Council; and “Comin’ Right at Ya” is also cited as a source in a travel story about Austin in the February issue of Hadassah magazine. And here’s a Ray Benson interview in Jewish Telegraph.
One downside of me working with Ray Benson as co-writer on “Comin’ Right at Ya” is that it kind of precludes me from writing about Asleep at the Wheel journalistically anytime soon. Even though I worked for a flat upfront fee and don’t have a financial stake in how well the book sells, it still wouldn’t look right for me to be reviewing the Wheel in the News & Observer. So the paper ran an excerpt around the time the book was published, and that will be it for me writing about them in the N&O for the foreseeable future except for the occasional mention in passing.
But that doesn’t have to stop anyone else here from doing it. Asleep at the Wheel is playing a Christmas show in Carrboro next week, so N&O freelance correspondent Ed Condran (who had some very kind things to say about “Losering” a few years back) interviewed Ray for a preview that ran in today’s paper. Check that here.
Sunday afternoon will find me anxiously wandering the halls of the State Capitol in Austin, trying to locate the right auditorium (Room E1.004) in time for my 4:15 p.m. appearance with Ray Benson at the Texas Book Festival. Being scheduled into the capitol building represents a nice upgrade from my last TBF go-round, in which I talked about “Losering” with a couple of my fellow music-book authors on the patio of a bar three years ago (an event that actually turned out just fine, despite my apprehensions).
Photo by Martha Burns.
Once Ray and I and moderator Doug Freeman (author of this week’s nice Austin Chronicle review) have assembled and the audience gathered, we’ll chat a bit about the whole book-writing thing in regards to “Comin’ Right at Ya” as well as Asleep at the Wheel’s long-running history. I believe Ray is bringing a guitar, so you can expect him to play at least a song or two. And if the audience has any questions, those will be entertained before Ray and I retire to the book-signing tent around 5:00. Margaritas to follow.
It’s entirely possible that this will basically turn into everyone in the room listening to Ray tell stories. Having spent a lot of time doing that over the past two years, I can just about guarantee that they’ll be worth hearing. It should be fun, and the fact that it’s free makes it low-risk — so come on out if you happen to be in the greater Central Texas vicinity.
Along with amazon reader reviews (two so far, both five-star), editorial reviews of “Comin’ Right at Ya” are starting to turn up — you can find some of them at the CRAY page above, in fact. And add to that a very nice one that came out today on PopMatters, which also had some very kind things to say about “Losering” a few years back. I particularly like the way this review closes:
It’s a tidy ending for the book, but far from the final chapter for a man who keeps chugging along and following his muse and vows to keep “riding that wave”.
Check that out here.
Good to see that “Comin’ Right At Ya” isn’t just providing entertainment in unexpected places, it’s also keeping some readers (or at least one reader, anyway) up late.
It never fails: Publish a book about somebody and people will show up as soon as it appears, relating stories you wish you’d heard in time to use. That happened a fair amount when “Losering” came out three years ago, and the pattern is holding with “Comin’ Right at Ya,” too.
After an excerpt from the book appeared in this past Sunday’s News & Observer, I heard from a gentleman named David Weiss, who lives in my neck of the woods nowadays but knew subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson in suburban Philadelphia way back when. He had a few tales and details about Ray’s childhood that would have been great to try and work in. Too late for that now, but at least I can share them here. Writes David:
I grew up across the street from the Seifert clan. Ray’s older brother Mike was my best friend from the time we were 4 years old all the way through high school. Little brother Ray was always tagging along with us (even though we tried to ditch him most of the time). I last saw Ray at Mike’s funeral several years ago and was pleasantly surprised by how warmly he greeted me, considering that we weren’t always very nice to him as the tag-along little brother.
The Seifert house was such a wonderful contrast to my own home across the street that I spent most of my time there. I said at Mike’s funeral that Bobbie (Mrs. Seifert) probably felt like she had five kids instead of just her own four. Their house was always filled with music. Bobbie Seifert was very creative and artistic, and Mike was an all-county saxophone, clarinet and recorder player. Funny that I don’t recall Ray being particularly musical as a child.
Their household was also, to put it politely, chaotic. You could jump from the open stairwell onto the living room couches with your shoes on (which we often did) and nobody said a word. Ray was as accident-prone as anyone I ever knew. Whenever he showed up at Chestnut Hill Hospital emergency room it was, “Ray, are you back again?” He split his chin open on a trampoline, got a large fish hook stuck through his finger, was hit in the head with a pipe. I’m sure there were other incidents that Ray may remember better than I do.
Today, Oct. 1, is the “official” publication date for “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.” I’m marking the occasion here because I won’t have any time for celebrating. Today will find me scurrying around all day and long into the night covering the big World of Bluegrass festival here in Raleigh, which is keeping me plenty busy this week — especially with Hurricane Joaquin apparently bearing down on us. Fun!
As for how co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson will mark his authorial debut, it should come as no surprise that he’ll do it onstage. Asleep at the Wheel is playing its traditional opening slot for this weekend’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, taking the stage just after noon Central Time Friday.
Down the road a bit, Ray and I will both do some bookstore-type events, separately as well as together. You can find me Oct. 8 at Books & Brew in Southern Village and Oct. 21 at Quail Ridge in Raleigh; and Ray is doing a hometown reading at Austin’s Book People on Nov. 18. And on Oct. 18, Ray and I will also appear together at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, at the State Capitol Auditorium.
My name appears on the cover of “Comin’ Right at Ya,” but below Ray Benson’s name and in much smaller type — and rightly so. This is his story, not mine, and he’s a lot more famous (not to mention taller) than I am. It’s not unusual for autobiographical memoirs like this to involve co-writers; and if you’re curious about what the co-writing gig is like, I penned an essay about the experience. It appears in the October issue of Walter, Raleigh’s city magazine, in a spread that includes a short bit of excerpted text from the book. Check that out on page 104 of October’s Home & Garden Issue, or here.
This should be interesting, a moderate media imbroglio just in time for this week’s publication day of “Comin’ Right at Ya.” I can tell you from experience that subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson is a man who speaks his mind. And in a recent interview with the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts to preview an Asleep at the Wheel show up that way, Ray was quoted saying some not-so-glowing things about modern mainstream country music in general, and bro-hunk Luke Bryan in particular:
You can relate to picking up girls, drinking beer and hot pants. The thematic stuff is what bothers me. I don’t like Luke Bryan and those guys, because there’s no originality. Every song follows pretty much the same chord progression. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Hank Williams used the same four chords, but there’s no melodic integrity and the words are just silly.
You listen to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson. None sound like the other. It’s individuality at its best. Patsy Cline was a pop singer, but with country sensibilities.
Let me qualify this by saying there’s great country music made today by lots of people, it’s just not getting on mainstream radio.
That quote has since been been picked up elsewhere, so…I guess we’ll see if Bryan has anything to say in return — and if that moves the needle at all once the book comes out.
Chris Boerner onstage at Raleigh’s Pour House nightclub with The Hot at Nights. Photo by Robert Pettus.
It’s always fun when acquaintances from different quadrants of my world brush up against each other, especially in far-away places. So it is that “Comin’ Right at Ya” star/co-writer Ray Benson is playing with Asleep at the Wheel tonight at a club in Pawling, New York, which is almost 600 miles north of my hometown of Raleigh. Opening tonight’s show will be Jeanne Jolly, a very fine Americana singer/songwriter from around these parts — whose guitar player, Chris Boerner, lives right around the corner from me. Chris is one of the coolest guitarists in this area and also plays with electronic soul group The Foreign Exchange and his own jazz band The Hot At Nights.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing a Ray Benson story or two the next time I bump into Chris around the ‘hood.